When the novel coronavirus struck in March, students’ plans for the rest of the spring semester were suddenly and violently disrupted. For my club, the Wharton Undergraduate Finance and Technology Group, this meant our New York City finance trek had to be immediately canceled. It was certainly disappointing to our members, since we had spent months cold-emailing firms, coordinating logistics, and soliciting sponsors for the event. We had planned to send 20 undergraduates on an all-day visit to some of New York’s top finance firms but were forced to indefinitely postpone the trip.

As students dispersed around the globe, most clubs effectively shut down. So did ours — at least, for a month or so — but we soon realized that a pandemic wasn’t an excuse for inaction. In early May, our club had a check-in call with Wharton FinTech, our MBA counterparts, who had been piloting online versions of their own canceled trek. We were determined to try it ourselves.

Shortly after the call, we got to work. Realizing that a digital trek wasn’t limited by geographic constraints, we eventually settled on a moonshot idea: Our club had previously discussed visiting innovative companies in Asia, but due to the high costs and logistical hurdles associated with an international trek, the idea had been put on the back burner. Ironically, COVID-19 had opened new doors for us. Instead of reconfiguring our New York trek to run online, we would plan a virtual Asia trek.

In mid-May, we tapped Penn’s online alumni database and began reaching out to successful investors in Asia. We assembled an all-star lineup of five alums to speak about their careers, their time at Wharton, and their thoughts on current events with our group of 17 participating undergraduates and MBAs.

The global reach of our hosts and their willingness to engage with students demonstrate why Wharton is so special.

We were honored to kick off the two-day trek with George Hongchoy WG91, a Penn trustee who leads Link REIT, the largest real estate investment trust in Asia by market capitalization. Mr. Hongchoy, CEO of the Hong Kong firm, walked us through some of the current trends in Asian real estate, noting the downward pressures on commercial properties but stressing the diversification of Link’s investment strategy. He also spoke about new frontiers and challenges for Link, such as mainland China’s pilot program allowing mutual funds to issue public REITs and the impacts of ongoing political changes in Hong Kong.

Shortly after that, we met with Richard Peng WG03, a founding partner of Genesis Capital. The firm, which has offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, has invested in several billion-dollar startups, including Xiaohongshu, Miss Fresh, and Meicai. When evaluating potential growth-stage investments, he said, the most important factor of success is the strength of the management team. In terms of personal advice for students interested in China’s burgeoning startup ecosystem, he emphasized the importance of integrating early into the country’s business community, which is driven by personal relationships and can seem a bit insular to outsiders.

On the second day of our trek, Kenny Lam W96, CEO of quantitative hedge fund Two Sigma Asia Pacific and a Wharton executive board member, echoed Mr. Peng’s sentiments on the value of personal relationships. As an example, he said he found himself in his current position after building relationships with the founders of Two Sigma in his previous role. As a result, when the New York firm began expanding its Asia footprint, the founders thought of Mr. Lam and ultimately extended to him the opportunity to lead their Asia operations from Hong Kong.

Also like Mr. Peng, our last two speakers shared their unique perspectives as leaders in venture capital. Joe Tian WG98, a founding partner of DT Capital Partners in Shanghai, mentioned the importance of building wide-ranging career skills early on, which he himself did as a consultant at McKinsey and as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan. Judy Ye WG01, founding partner of Shanghai’s YiMei Capital, prepared a presentation on VC trends in China, specifically highlighting opportunities for educational technology. The sector, which has benefited from increasing interest in remote technologies, has enabled millions of Chinese students to continue receiving high-quality schooling in spite of COVID-19.

Challenges from a pandemic notwithstanding, our virtual trek exceeded our expectations and allowed our club to continue fulfilling its dual mission of education and bringing students and alumni together. Our five hosts offered valuable insights to the group and encouraged us to stay in touch with them — and, in fact, Mr. Tian reached out to the group afterward with an internship opportunity at one of his portfolio companies.

I will never forget this experience. The global reach of our hosts and their willingness to engage with students demonstrate the power of the alumni network and why Wharton is so special.

 

Daniel Tan C22 W22 is a junior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business and serves as a co-president of the Wharton Undergraduate Finance and Technology Group.

 

Published as “Pandemic Pivot” in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of  Wharton Magazine.